Q&A: Chris Bathgate on Digital Fabrication

Q&A: Chris Bathgate on Digital Fabrication

Chris Bathgate, WA523322411

Chris Bathgate’s WA 523322411 (2014) stands about 2 feet tall and weighs in at nearly 58 pounds; Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Sculptor Chris Bathgate, featured in American Craft's “Brave New World” story, might have one of the most unique – and hard-won – perspectives on digital fabrication technology: The artist is completely self-taught, having spent 10 years researching and building his own equipment, which today includes CNC metal lathes, a CNC milling machine, and a 3D printer, among other tools and software. You can see the fruit of that immersive (and ongoing) learning process in his spectacularly intricate sculptures – and his wonderfully nuanced views of the tools and technologies he employs.

To begin, can you tell us more about how digital technologies figure in your work? How did you come to them?
I am currently a full-time sculptor working mostly in machined metals. I have had the pleasure of building several CNC machine tools over the years. Many of them are of my own design or have been modified to meet my specific needs. I currently have two CNC metal lathes, a large CNC milling machine, as well as a 3D printer and countless other secondary automation projects in use in my studio; I employ CAD, CAD/CAM, and other 3D modeling software in my work as well.

As for how I got into doing machine work and building my own robotic equipment, I largely have the internet and the books to thank. Other than a little welding instruction in high school, I am completely self-taught as a metalworker, machinist, and machine builder. I spent the better part of 10 years researching and building my own equipment while learning the finer intricacies of machine work. I started out doing manual machine work and would incorporate techniques I was trying to master into my sculptural designs so that I could continue to grow my technical knowledge while experimenting with visual concepts at the same time.

It was a method that worked extremely well, and balancing the dichotomy of visual and technical goals resonated with me in surprising ways. This led to increasingly complex and ambitious designs and I soon found myself experimenting with CNC machine tools, and, before long, I had built an entire shop worth of equipment. I was always challenging myself to learn new things and try risky ideas. It was a very organic transition from manual machine work to CNC machining, but it was one driven by a learning-based approach to sculpture, instead of production-based one.  

An emerging maxim associated with digital fabrication is that it is best applied in cases where “the hand alone” could not have achieved the desired result. Do you agree or disagree?
I think from a simplistic perspective, this is largely true. But when given a more nuanced assessment, you quickly realize that there are countless exceptions to this statement that might make it worth a second look.

Part of this maxim’s popularity comes from logically concluding that if you simply allow a machine to do a task that a skilled artist can also do by hand, then its use demotes the artist to simply a passive participant. From there it is easy to think that the task would no longer be fun for the artist, and so maybe his or her passion for the work would suffer, and therefore, so would their work. You might also argue that the end product would not have as much personality or gravitas for lack of a human touch and therefore the whole exercise might quickly loose its artistic merit and general appeal. It is one that imagines the machine sucking all of the vitality out of the work – and shifting the focus squarely to the end product.

But the scenario I just described presumes that you are not allowing your new tools to grow or change your work in any significant way. If you were resigned to let your work stagnate through mindless repetition in the first place, it would eventually become boring no matter who or what was making it. The most interesting thing about digital fabrication is the unexpected ways it allows your work to grow and transform.

There is no question that these technologies are great for doing prohibitively repetitive tasks and physically impossible feats, but they do have limits and can contribute more than tireless, skilled labor. Something to consider is that the one thing these tools do best is something artists do the least: I am referring to building the exact same thing over and over again without variation.

For example, a factory usually builds just a handful of items in massive quantities, which means the tools and equipment can be narrowly targeted to doing one or two things extremely well, as little changes from month to month or year to year.  This is not usually the case with artists, they usually want to make new and different things all of the time and expect their tools to adapt and grow with them.

When the things we are trying to make are constantly changing, it can create issues for certain ideals inherent in automation, but it can also create interesting opportunities to innovate. When employing similar technologies to small-scale, ever-changing projects, it might not always be beneficial to go through all of the trouble of setting up a perfectly automated process. We instead are forced to think about what we want to achieve and the range of processes that might work best to achieve it. This can have an inverse impact on our creative decision-making process and the things we are willing to commit to building. If we have to allocate resources to adapting our tools to meet a particular end, resources that may be better spent following other creative insights, it forces us to justify the creative choices we make and gives them material validity when we are certain they need to be made. It can be surprisingly complex, but this dedication to logistical problem solving can foster an appreciation for our creative intuition as we are forced into logically assessing what our gut is telling us.

Additionally, as creative types, we have to think about how each process affects not only our workflow, but also our creative instincts. As artists, we have the luxury of contemplating how leveraging these tools can add both complexity and meaning to what we do. We aren’t just cranking out widgets; we are using the fabrication process to create objects that are deeply meaningful to us. We can use the experience we gain to look for personal insights, and try to assemble a broader understanding of how the tools themselves fit into the human story, and apply that back into our art. That is what is so exciting about using these tools, they are not just a means to an end, but are a reflection of human progress that we can examine while we work.

It has also been my experience that many people, who are not familiar with CNC tools or even 3D printing, have a perception that these tools function in such a way that all one needs to do is simply hit a button, and out pops a perfectly fabricated part or work of art. Even though many of these tools are marketed that way, nothing could be further from the truth. There are many layers to most processes: While they may streamline certain aspects of work and even speed actual fabrication, they can add unanticipated complexity to pre and post operation planning that otherwise would not have been present.

This all might sound like I am being disparaging, but I only mean to place these tools in their proper context. Complicated systems such as CNC tools, when working perfectly, can be a wondrously productive and enchanting thing. But being complicated assemblages, they bring a host of their own technical issues with them. Coaxing the tools and equipment to do exactly what we want them to, in order to achieve a good result, takes a great deal of planning, knowledge, and experience.  Anyone who has ever tinkered with a hobby-grade 3D printer can attest to the fact that they are not perfect replicators. They are, in fact, brainless machines that can only do exactly what you tell them to, and nothing more. Even if you give them perfect instructions, they still can only perform appropriately when all of the other conditions surrounding their operation are properly met. They take a great deal of patience and trial and error to get things working smoothly. Once you do however, they can be a great addition to a studio.

But the part of what I just mentioned that I want to bring attention to is all of the detail that goes into figuring out how to make the tool perform properly, and the intimate understanding of the process that it brings with it. This seemingly tedious and unnecessary exercise of breaking a task down into a series of requirements that must be met in order for a tool to perform greatly enriches the way we see our designs and can lead to interesting creative solutions.

So to bring this all around and answer the question again, if your only goal is to achieve a specific result as easily as possible with no intention to learn anything from the process – if your interest in CNC tools is a mindless product – you may be going about things in the wrong way, and are indeed going to miss the real opportunity that these tools present. 

What’s the greatest potential of these tools and technologies? What have you seen that most excites you?
I think the most exciting thing about these tools and technologies is how dramatically they have lowered the cost of entry into the field for people interested in doing highly technical kinds of fabrication. It used to be that in order to put together even a modest CNC machine shop, one that was capable of doing a wide range of processes, you would easily be talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in start up and maintenance costs. This meant that what ever you were doing with these tools had to be extremely profitable, which usually meant, that what ever you were using them for, was almost assuredly not very creative.

But thanks to the constant march of progress, improvements and drastic reductions in the cost of electronics and other very specialized hardware, that cost is less than a tenth of what it used to be and continues to fall. Even though the learning curve is still a little steep as far as operating and maintaining some of these tools, It is now possible for a highly motivated artist such as myself, to set up and run a one man shop purely for the purposes of exploring how these tools may be utilized for their aesthetic worth to the world of sculpture. I find more and more artists like me all of the time, and I suspect that many more are soon to follow as the popularity of these tools continues to increase, and I couldn’t think of anything more exciting than that.

But even further down the road, as costs continue to come down further, and as smaller, much more user friendly, desktop-sized manufacturing tools mature and proliferate in the market, some of the remaining barriers to entry will also be addressed. Usability is a very big issue currently, but as the tools continue to get simpler, both in design, and ease of use, it will have an even greater democratizing effect on who gets to have access to the means of production. It will no longer be just the highly motivated and skilled, it will be more and more the case that casual users will also have greater access to the means to build what ever they like. We will no doubt continue to see new uses being invented for this technology, be they brilliant, novel, or completely impractical, what fun.

You sometimes hear the statement that technologies are simply new tools – and in many ways, yes, absolutely. But compared to manual tools, there are distinguishing traits. Hands-on feedback may be reduced, for example. A program can prevent a design flaw. Does this matter? Do digital fabrication tools have the potential to change how we think about making?
My relationship to my tools and how I use them developed incrementally over many years. The transition from manual to automated work happened one small process at a time and was so seamless that I have a hard time drawing a line between what counts as full automation and manual production, and so it all feels like shades of gray to me. Sure it is true that my tools and equipment automate many of the tasks I would otherwise have to do by hand, but I have built and must constantly maintain the operation of all of my equipment by hand. I continue to innovate constantly when it comes to modifying my equipment to perform certain tasks it maybe was not originally intended to do. This begs the question of whether a handcrafted machine, performing an automated task does not owe some of that handcrafted-ness to the work it is performing. To say it another way, the hand is very present in setting up the complex systems that do tasks for us, be it a chain of dominoes falling, or a tool that cuts steel for us, and it is not as black and white as it may first seem, where the craftsmanship may lie.

As far as feedback and opportunities to gain physical insight while working. All of the automation that takes place in my studio exists on a spectrum: Some tasks can be easily automated, while others require secondary and tertiary operations be done on manual equipment or by hand. Regardless of the seeming effortlessness of the execution of a given task, there are still countless opportunities for feedback and serendipity to find its way into the work. Automation allows you to view your work from multiple new perspectives, such as a highly defined geometric object, a purely mathematical quantity, or even from a programming perspective. Although none of these are very tactile, they offer their own special kinds of feedback.

I also don’t completely buy the line that a program can necessarily prevent a design flaw. Besides the simple fact that there are plenty of other things that can go wrong, whether you write your code by hand like I often do or let a separate piece of software write the program for you, you have to possess a very intimate knowledge of how the process you are automating is going to unfold, so that you can direct your machine or software properly. Machines are blind and dumb, if you mistakenly give them directions that will lead them to destroy themselves, they will most certainly do it without a second thought.

So effectively automating something usually means also knowing how to do that same task manually. Needless to say, there are still plenty of opportunities for mistakes and glitches to find their way into what would seem like an infallible process. Proofing your machine code is just one very important step, and I rather enjoy the perspective that checking and writing the necessary code to cut a part gives me. I have designed a number of pieces around the simple act of coding itself, by creating a single piece of G-code (that’s the code that drives the machines) in such a way, that by manipulating just a few values within that code, I could create new and unanticipated geometries from it. It was an interesting way to view the process and see what new things could arise from it.

Digital tools certainly expand what is possible, and they bring with them many new perspectives on tasks we thought we understood. I have always thought about my creative process from the perspective of what a given tool is capable of, and then worked backwards to find inspiration within that framework of possibility to test its boundaries and see what may come of it. So for me, new tools means new ways of thinking, and greatly impact they way I attempt to materialize my thoughts about form.

Some people predict that digital fabrication (and the promise of localized, custom, small-scale production) will “disrupt” the mass-production model. To the world of makers, craftspeople, and/or artists, already outside of that mass-production paradigm, does that make it friend or foe?
I certainly see the potential opportunities for artists and craftspeople employing these technologies to compete in niche markets helping to add to some of that predicted disruption. But I largely see these tools and technologies as neutral when it comes to artists. No different than the invention of photography, which certainly changed the conversation in the world of images, but was neither good nor bad for the existence and viability of artists overall. Digital fabrication tools will be no different; they will just be something new to add to the conversation, something that gets to be explored by those who care to take an interest.

I have heard some people wonder out loud if 3D printers and other rapid prototyping technologies might displace artist and other skilled craftspeople who deal in real objects: As in, who would buy an expensive art object or designer knick knack when you can simply print your own for very little? On this front I am not convinced. It’s easy to look at how the internet has made it vastly more difficult for writers, musicians, photographers, and anyone else who creates easily reproducible digital content to monetize what they do, and from there draw a line to predict that phenomenon expanding into the world of 3D, but I am still cautiously skeptical.

I can hold a 3D print of one of my sculptures in one hand, and the real thing in the other, and there is still no question which one is more impressive.  Unlike digital media, which can be perfectly reproduced instantly, at no cost, and with little effort, digitally replicating an object will always require some effort, and use some amount real material, time, and with some loss of quality – at least for the foreseeable future. Although digital 3D models may be shared and sent around the web freely, and cheap knock offs of designer objects may eventually emerge, there will still be no question of what is authentic and original for some time to come. Needless to say, as a sculptor myself, I am not that worried.